TACOMA — Imagine the worst day of your life turned into a comedy film. It happened to Nicky Salapu on Nov. 17 when “Next Goal Wins” opened in theaters across the country.
The soccer comedy-drama tells the true story of, in the words of movie website IMDB, “… the infamously terrible American Samoa soccer team.”
Salapu, now 43, was the goalie on that team in 2001 when they went up against the Australian national team in a FIFA World Cup qualifier and suffered the worst lost in soccer history for a senior national team. Salapu, the goalie, allowed 31 goals by the Australian team which included future soccer star Tim Cahill.
The Samoan team scored zero.
‘Next Goal Wins’
Hollywood heavyweight Michael Fassbender (“X-men,” “Prometheus”) leads the cast in the $14 million film. Australian Actor Uli Latukefu (“Black Adam,” “Marco Polo,” “Young Rock,” “Alien: Covenant”) plays Salapu.
The Hollywood movie follows a 2014 documentary of the same name about the team, its loss, and the subsequent hiring of coach Thomas Rongen, who Fassbender plays. The IMDB synopsis for the documentary is a little kinder than the comedy’s: “The power of hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, and an object lesson in what it really means to be a winner in life.”
That description is the one Salapu will likely tell you, if you ask him, how it feels to have his life immortalized on the big screen.
“Ultimately, it’s inspirational,” he said this week on a soccer field at Lacey’s Regional Athletic Complex. “I mean, it’s a comedy too, but it’s a feel good sort of movie.”
The feel good part — as in most sports movies — is a rise from the depths of defeat.
Academy Award-winner Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit,” “Thor: Ragnarok”) co-wrote and directed the new film.
Growing up Samoan
Salapu was born in American Samoa, a U.S. territory, but was raised by his grandparents in the nearby independent nation of Samoa from the age of three months until he was 20. Born with a deformed left foot, his grandmother religiously massaged it and bound it for years.
“I was crying nonstop, but she’s still forcing me,” he recalled. Whatever she did, it worked, he said.
First a rugby player, he switched to soccer at age 10. The village he grew up in was built around a soccer pitch.
“We played sports over there every evening, after we do cooking and everything for our family before,” he said.
It sounds like an idyllic childhood in a tropical paradise. But Salapu grew up too poor to even afford shoes. Water faucets didn’t always work at the various fields he played on.
“You just practice for two hours without drinking any water,” he said. “And then you have to walk home barefoot.”
As he grew up, he played in ever larger leagues until he found himself the American Samoa team’s goalie on April 11, 2001.
At age 20, Salapu, was the oldest member of a team made up of mostly high school students. There were even eighth graders on the team, he said.
“None of them were really good in soccer,” he said. Some had never played a full 90-minute game.
“I knew it was going to be a disaster,” he said of the game against the Australians. By the time the match was over, Salapu had been knocked unconscious three times.
“I was trying the best that I can,” he said. “To stay strong, to keep the score down.”
The 31-0 loss was devastating for the team and especially for Salapu.
“It was sad,” he recalled. “After the game, I cried and I was like, ‘I’m never gonna play soccer again.’”
Today, Salapu lives in Olympia with wife Nicole and son Dylan, 16. He’s a forklift driver for Costco. The family moved to Thurston County in 2022 from Fife where they had lived since 2016.
While Salapu featured prominently as himself in the documentary, he had virtually no involvement in the drama-comedy. Like many who see their stories portrayed by actors, condensed for brevity and plot points over or under emphasized, “Next Goal Wins” surprised him.
“It’s not what I expected,” he said. But, in the same breath, he calls the film inspiring.
“We need a young generation and good players to come and play for our country,” he said.
And what did he think of Latukefu’s portrayal of him?
Salapu lets out a long breath before answering, “It’s great … I respect and I am very thankful for all the people who did the movie for us.”
With the World Cup qualifiers approaching in 2011, the team hired Rongen to break the team’s yearslong losing streak. The unconventional coach had just three weeks before the qualifiers to get the team in shape. Ted Lasso he was not.
Salapu’s 2001 vow to never play soccer again didn’t last long. He quickly returned to the team and stuck with it through the next decade as the team continued its losing streak. No matter how long it took, he and his team needed a victory.
Rongen chose Salapu to once again be the goalie even though he had just retired.
“It was a big gamble,” Rongen told Al Jazeera in 2014. “I had no idea when I called him how driven he would be, how motivated he was.”
“If we can motivate ourselves, challenge ourselves to win, we can get somewhere,” Salapu said this week.
Salapu doesn’t want to give out any spoilers. But, it’s in the history books and the American Samoa team didn’t stray from the comeback narrative.
As she was in reality, a character in the film becomes a linchpin for the team. Jaiyah “Johnny” Saelua is played by actor Kaimana in the film. Saelua is a fa’afafine, a third gender that is accepted as a crucial member of Samoan culture.
A bench warmer for years, Saelua plays an important role in the team’s ultimate success. Salapu was Saelua’s first soccer coach when she attended middle school.
In 2002, Salapu’s agent asked him to play for a Detroit team. But, he didn’t last long.
“And then I came over (to Puget Sound) and never thought of going back,” he said. “So I decided to live in Seattle, but I was still going back and forth to play for American Samoa.”
While the family lived in Fife, Salapu was a goalkeeper coach at Tacoma Community College during the 2018 season. He’s also refereed for and coached at local high schools and other teams across the region.
Back to Samoa
The famed Samoan-Australian match can be played on Xbox, a favorite pasttime for Salapu and Dylan. When the boy was younger, Salapu would play as Australia and let Dylan score repeatedly as Samoa.
Now, both could soon be playing for the real team. In a case of life imitating art, both Dylan and his father are headed to Samoa in 2024 to play for the national team. Dylan, a Tumwater High School student and center back for the soccer team, played for the under-17 Samoan national team in 2022. In September, father and son will travel to Samoa for a World Cup qualifier.